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Understanding Dog Behavior

A puppy reaching out with their paws extended
What drives your dog's behaviors?

All living creatures have evolved to do what’s pleasant and avoid what’s unpleasant. Logically, we would have evolved to do the things that promote survival and procreation and avoid things that are harmful and reduce our chances of survival. Therefore, the things that lead to survival have been wired in us to be pleasurable and the opposite, well, not. As an extension of this principle, we should also note that every behavior has a function. There is nothing you or any creature does that doesn’t have some kind of purpose or need underlying it. It doesn’t need to be as drastic as survival; it could merely be to relieve discomfort, like an itch. This should all seem pretty obvious, but I have a feeling most people don’t really think about that on a day-to-day basis. As a dog trainer, I think about this principle all the time.

If we are talking specifically about dogs, we could say that dogs do what’s rewarding and avoid what’s painful or scary. We can also say, as stated above, that every behavior they perform meets an underlying need. Every behavior has the function of either pursuing the appetitive (rewarding) or avoiding discomfort (pain, stress, fear). Pretty sure we humans can relate to that, and this applies to ALL ANIMALS (and probably insects and even plants, as we are discovering).

So how does this relate to using tools such as prong, choke, or shock/e-collars? I see many dog trainers claiming that these tools are perfectly fine if “used correctly.” If a behavior leads to something rewarding, it will be repeated. If a behavior leads to something aversive, the animal will avoid that outcome in the future by stopping the behavior. When we look at the result of using a prong, choke, or shock/e-collar, what we see is that a certain behavior deemed unwanted by us has stopped. Based on what you know from my short explanation, why would an animal stop a behavior? To avoid discomfort, pain, stress, fear or other outcomes deemed antithetical to survival. This means that BY DEFINITION these tools are aversive to the animal they are being used on. Whether they “merely” cause discomfort or whether they cause extreme pain or fear, it is an entirely unnecessary stressor to the animal which is imposed by us, because we don’t like something they’re doing.

There are humane ways of changing unwanted behavior WITHOUT the use of tools or other methods that work on the principle of avoiding what’s aversive. The best way is to meet the need that’s underlying the behavior. If you meet the need, you make the behavior unnecessary.

Here’s an example: A lot of people have “reactive” dogs. This means that when the dog sees a trigger, they start barking and lunging. Many times (not 100% of cases, obviously), this is based in fear. The barking and lunging serves as a “distance-increasing” behavior, meaning that the dog is trying to make the trigger go away. What is the underlying need here? The need to feel safe from the perceived threat. We can make our dogs feel safe in so many ways (another topic for another time). Once our dog feels safe, why would they need to bark and lunge? They wouldn’t. Contrast this to people who choose to yank on a prong collar on their dog’s neck (which by the way, please go look up the anatomy of a dog’s neck to see what exactly you’d be yanking on) while the dog is already feeling threatened by the trigger. Even if the dog stops barking and lunging to avoid the discomfort of being yanked on, have you really helped them? Have you made them feel better about the trigger? Probably not.

Yes, training humanely by determining the underlying need driving the behavior can be difficult. It requires creativity and patience. It requires compromise on the part of the dog’s guardian (maybe take your dog to a SniffSpot instead of walking them in a triggering area). But when it comes to the emotional wellbeing of our dogs, shouldn’t we be treating them as we would want to be treated ourselves?

One last thought: Learning theory/theory of animal behavior is true across all species of animal. If we can train dolphins and birds without the use of choke, prong, or shock/e-collars; if we can train zoo animals to willingly accept veterinary care (YouTube this shit—it’s amazing) without the use of aversive tools, WHY should we be training our dogs any differently?

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